The Stages of Learning

By Thea Iberall



In psychology, there is a model called the four stages of competence. People start out unaware how little they know about something because they are unconscious of their incompetence. As they become aware of their incompetence, they consciously acquire new skills and become consciously incompetent. With practice, they can become consciously competent. Eventually, they master the activity and begin using the skills without conscious awareness and become unconsciously competent. We all followed this process, for example, in how we learned to drive a car so that we no longer have to think about it.


I remember going through those stages learning tennis. I tried to play and couldn’t hit the ball very well. So I took lessons to learn the game and saw how bad I was at it. With practice, I learned the strokes, steps, and rules until I didn’t have to think consciously about what I was doing. I could just play and enjoy my competence. In sports psychology, they call this the state of flow.


I watch our grandchildren making decisions and choices. They have no idea how big the world is around them and they are unaware of how incompetent they are relative to that big world. The truth is, when we try to do something at first, none of us know how big the world is that we are delving into.


But as we explore that world, we start seeing the possibilities and we start upon a learning curve to learn the rules. It takes a willingness to do that and a desire to succeed. I see the grandkids doing that, learning about fashion and sports and cooking.


I see them asking questions. I see them noticing things. I see them practicing. They are gaining the skills and tools and the competence to continue to explore the space.


In the stage of flow, knowledge is integrated. One intuitively knows how to anticipate, how to act, how to apply tools. One can bend the rules and create something new. Over this past weekend, we needed paint to decorate a wooden carving but we didn’t have any. The 8-year-old whipped some paint up out of glue, water, and food dye. The unconscious competence of a budding chemist.


Learning takes practice. In talking about the Observer yesterday, Shirley said, “As you practice, you integrate with the Observer within. It’s a process. You practice and make progress. Every time we offer help to someone in need, spend a gentle moment with an innocent pet, or respect the beauty of nature, we are practicing how to do it.”


Acquiring a skill and using a tool is a process. From being unaware, to starting to learn, to practicing, and to achieving flow. If we are starting to learn and are practicing, but are comparing ourselves to someone in the state of flow, we will get discouraged. We need to be patient with ourselves and not beat ourselves up. We are limited by our own beliefs.

Shirley has created this incubator which is helping people integrate silence into their lives as they discover the grace of authenticity through sharing in community.


I ask myself every day, what new tools am I learning in our incubator. It is truly a powerful process to have this chance to reflect on living a life in serenity. Here in this incubator, I am gaining access to the tools we have all shared, such as detachment, affirmations, radical self-care, breath, being in the moment, and gratitude. I go out into my daily life and I practice integrating them into my conscious awareness. And then I report back to you all the successes and challenges I am experiencing on my journey towards becoming my authentic self.


Participants’ Reflections

  • Thank you so much. I have never heard of those four stages before. I can really see how it can add coherence and a sense of progression. I want to learn more.

  • I picked up on what the morning sessions have meant to all of us. First of all, community is really important; reflecting on who I am and what’s important; reminders of who I can be; remembrances of past people and events; rebuttals – I’ve learned to argue with myself a little better; reliving the important things in my life; recounting my joys; respecting the natural world, others and myself; and renewing because every day is a new beginning for us.

  • Thank you for the list. Maybe one day we’ll be able to write that list and share it with each other in person. I too echo the aha’s on what you read. It’s just wonderful and helps me understand that it’s good to embrace ignorance. It’s good to know what we don’t know because it’s just another new beginning in our lives, and I think that happens over and over and over. Thank you.

  • What was shared made me think of what I used to say to my students. Confucius said ignorance is the beginning of learning. As you read the meditation, I went back to the classroom thinking what a joy it was to me to see students on the precipice of beginning to understand. After I became a decent teacher, I could look at their eyes that were a barometer of how much they were understanding and then the moment they got it. That’s one of the biggest joys in teaching for me. I had so many older women who did not think they could ever do mathematics and were told those negative messages by other teachers. Just thinking how fun it was to watch them go through the stages of incompetent, competence to the aha moment. To be witness of that is really joyful.

  • It’s the same joy we get from listening to reflections and hearing the aha’s happening here.

  • Thank you to everyone who spoke today. It was a very meaningful reading and the insights touched me very deeply. One thing that came to me from the sharing was the memory of sitting in church and feeling the congregation getting the message. The room would feel lighter. I had a few opportunities to be on the pulpit and share from that position. The amazing energy and power in community, and the learning process in that. Thank you for that memory.

  • I’ve been doing a lot of dreamwork, and during that magical time between sleep and wake, I had an extraordinary insight into a series of dreams that uncovered something really deep that’s been buried since I was a young child. What I’m realizing today is how I learn these things and then I forget and then I learn them again, but the crack is a little deeper and a little wider. I’m seeing the crack opening more each time in this learning process.

  • I read this Facebook medical group that was started by a psychiatrist with health conditions who shares her struggles and discoveries about her conditions, and how the symptoms conglomerate together causing complicated problems. I feel like it’s so far above my head having to do with gene studies. It’s something that is foreign to me. What you said was helpful today because everyone has to start the learning process at some point. Maybe I’ll have the time and energy to learn it, I don’t know, but it helps to know everyone starts at the beginning in the learning process.

  • I hope you all have a gentle day reflecting on the process of learning. Thank you so much.

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